Spain: One Day Later (with a FAQ + Update)

Obviously, our collective attention has been focused on tragic events that are, for Americans, much closer to home. But the situation in Spain continues to bear watching. And it isn’t over yet.

Sunday, Catalonia held a vote to determine whether or not the region should break way from Spain and become an independent nation. The vote was declared illegal by the Spanish government, but carried on anyway. Unable to get local police forces to shut down the election, Madrid essentially shipped in scab workers—police from other parts of Spain—and the equivalent of the National Guard. They were under instructions to clear every polling place on Sunday, using violence only if necessary.

Apparently, they’re big fans of modern American policing. Because of course violence was necessary. In school after school—oh, did I mention? most Spanish polling places are elementary schools—citizens captured cell phone footage of these import cops beating people with batons, dragging unarmed women around by their hair, and in at least one instance, just simply opening fire on demonstrators with rubber bullets. About 900 reported civilian injuries (plus another several hundred minor injuries to police) according to the most recent reporting I could find, but, thankfully, no deaths that I’m aware of. I guess they aren’t that big of fans of modern American policing.

Despite all of that, they largely failed. Voting occurred in a majority of polling places, although the exact figures are a matter of some debate. Because it was obvious that some polling places would be shut down, the restrictions on voting in the assigned polling place were lifted, with the intention that poll workers would check names against the voter registration lists electronically. In many situations, that system worked correctly. In others, overloaded cell phone towers and Spanish interference made the confirmation system dodgy at best. There was at least one known example of voter fraud; an anti-secession activist intentionally voted at four locations, in a stated effort to delegitimize the vote (naturally, he claimed that if he could do it, then all the supporters must also have been doing it…). That issue aside, to the extent that this could be a considered a meaningful vote by any means, over 90% of the votes cast were for independence. But on top of the logistics issues, the pro-union side largely boycotted the whole thing, so turnout was somewhere in the 40-50% bracket. For comparison, that’s less than US presidential election turnout, but better than quite a few midterms or special elections. Americans suck at voting.

And now the Madrid government has two problems. First, this secession topic isn’t going away. Carles Puigdemont, the regional president (and head of the secession movement) was widely expected to unilaterally declare independence after the vote; instead, he’s taking the issue to the Catalan parliament while signaling Madrid that there’s still a chance for negotiations. This vastly complicates Madrid’s expected “arrest everyone and charge them with sedition” counter-reaction; so far, the central government hasn’t really done much tangible in response. In part that’s because of the second problem: their important troops were caught on video behaving in the sort of widespread police brutality that we’ve come to expect in the US, but that is still pretty firmly looked down upon in Europe. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy may have said that his police acted “serenely”, but serene police actions don’t injure a thousand people. As a protest specifically against the police brutality, a general strike in Catalonia is widely expected tomorrow (Tuesday). 

How Rajoy responds to that, and what Madrid’s next steps are, are anyone’s guess. But going by the central government’s actions over the past week, those steps seem unlikely to be constructive. Regardless, the bottom line is that this problem is not going away.

Update: Today, the European Parliament announced a special session would be held Wednesday to discuss “the rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain in light of the events in Catalonia.” There is some suggestion that this may presage international mediation in the dispute, something which Puigdemont has been requesting since before Sunday. That would make a diplomatic solution far more likely. On the other hand Rafael Catalá, the Spanish Justice Minister, has suggested that Spain might need to exercise a constitutional option giving Madrid the option to seize control of the regional government in its entirely. That would make a diplomatic solution, shall we say, far less likely.